Meet and Greet

AOC engages with JCRC-NY at last

The progressive Congresswoman acknowledged the frustration felt by Jewish leaders in New York

Ståle Grut/NRKbeta

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) at SXSW 2019.

Since taking office in 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has maintained a noticeably distant relationship with mainstream Jewish organizations in New York City, despite repeated overtures from Jewish leaders seeking face time with her.

But on Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez signaled that she is more willing to engage, joining the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which represents the Jewish community to New York government officials and counts more than 50 local Jewish groups as members, for a virtual conversation touching on antisemitism, Holocaust education, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues.

The discussion with JCRC’s outgoing CEO, Michael Miller, posted on YouTube Monday morning, is the first occasion in which Ocasio-Cortez has publicly addressed such topics with a mainstream Jewish group in New York.

In the interview — part of a series of conversations with New York representatives in lieu of an annual congressional breakfast, which was canceled this year because of the pandemic — Miller asked Ocasio-Cortez to address the feeling among members of the organized Jewish community that she has been ignoring their calls.

“I’m very proud to have been deeply engaged in our local community and our local Jewish community from the very beginning,” said Ocasio-Cortez, pointing to her involvement with the Jackson Heights Jewish Center in Queens, the Jewish Community Council of Pelham Parkway and the Bronx House, a Jewish community center in the Bronx.

Still, the 31-year-old progressive congresswoman, whose district includes sections of the Bronx and Queens, acknowledged the frustration felt by Jewish leaders in New York who have been eager to meet with her. Her reticence, she suggested, shouldn’t be interpreted as a personal snub. 

During her first term in the House, “especially with the crushing volume of everything that was going on at the time, I was really focused on our backyard,” she said, stating that she had put off conversations with citywide Jewish groups in an effort to address the more immediate concerns of her own district.

“I think that’s maybe where some of that feeling and sentiment had come from,” she told Miller. “But I’m very happy to be engaging now, and now that we have some time, in this transition recovery out of COVID, to be able to do that citywide and statewide connecting as well.”

The congresswoman’s office did not respond to a request for comment about any future plans to engage with Jewish organizations in New York. But her communications director, Lauren Hitt, pushed back against the suggestion that Ocasio-Cortez’s engagement with Jewish groups has so far been lacking. 

“I’d just note that this isn’t her first event with JCRC, let alone a Jewish leader in New York,” Hitt said in an email to Jewish Insider, noting that Ocasio-Cortez had participated in a march against antisemitism in January of 2020. “She also met with the president of J Street and visited the Jewish Association Serving the Aging.”

For JCRC, however, last week’s virtual conversation with Ocasio-Cortez was notable. Miller had first inquired about setting up an in-person meeting with the congresswoman in 2018, not long after she pulled off a surprise primary upset over Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley. By the end of her first term in office, Miller had yet to hear back — as he recounted in an interview with JI last fall after Ocasio-Cortez, facing mounting pressure from pro-Palestinian activists, withdrew from an Americans for Peace Now event commemorating slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 

“There is a lot of frustration,” Miller said at the time. 

The effort to set up an interview this term went more smoothly. JCRC reached out to Ocasio-Cortez’s office about the virtual conversation on January 26, according to Noam Gilboord, the organization’s chief operating officer, and heard back in mid-February. 

“I will tell you that her staff was very easy to deal with,” Gilboord told JI. “Once they had agreed to the interview it was pretty smooth in terms of getting us to the interview date and keeping the date.”

Throughout the conversation, Ocasio-Cortez seemed at ease as she discussed, among other things, her own “sense of spirituality” as well as her belief that social media platforms have allowed antisemitism and other forms of bigotry to flourish online. 

“At its core, hatred, and the radicalization that we are seeing, is directly connected to digital platforms in general and Facebook in particular,” she told Miller. “We really need to make sure that we focus and hold these CEOs responsible for the algorithms that they know — they know, Michael — what they’re doing.”

But on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the congresswoman spoke mostly in broader strokes, and at points sounded less sure of herself. “When we talk about establishing peace, centering people’s humanities, protecting people’s rights, it’s not just about the what and the end goal, which often gets a lot of focus,” she said near the end of the interview, “but I actually think it’s much more about the how and the way that we are coming together and how we interpret that what and how we act in the actions that we take to get to that what — and so what this is really about is that it’s a question, more than anything else, about process.”

“That being said, I think there’s just this one central issue of settlements,” she added, “because if the ‘what,’ if the ‘what’ that has been decided on is two-state, then the action of settlements — it’s not the how to get to that ‘what’ — and so I think that’s a central thing that we need to make sure that we center and that we value Jewish — rather, we value Israeli — we value the safety and the human rights of Israelis, we value the safety and human rights of Palestinians in that process.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who emphasized that she has “done a lot of policy work in this space,” told Miller that it was “important to apply” such principles universally. 

“Just like here in the United States, I don’t believe that children should be detained,” she said, alluding to an oft-repeated charge, particularly popular among some on the far-left, that Israel detains Palestinian minors. “Starting on those basic principles of human rights, I think we can build a path to peace together.”

Despite several potential areas of disagreement, Miller was deferential throughout the 38-minute discussion. “These programs are not debates,” he told JI in an interview on Monday. “What we’re trying to do is elicit from each member their point of view on the issues of the day and the priorities of the Jewish community.”

Ultimately, Miller said he was optimistic that the conversation would serve as a springboard for further discussions with Ocasio-Cortez about issues of concern to the Jewish community.

“The interview has concluded and we still want to continue to engage,” he told JI. “From my perspective, this was an opening.”

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